The Prodigal Son – A Parable about Love that Packs a Punch

Guercino Return Prodigal Son

Today we live in a global society, whose complexities of life and its ups and downs have an ability to impact on just about everyone else on our planet.

On a daily basis we need to give thanks for those people bravely securing and protecting our borders and the beauty and the blessings that we all share, whether at home in Australia or in trouble torn places around the world.

From documentaries, to action thrillers, serial killers and their criminal minds the stories writers deliver into our homes often provide us all with an insight into how contemporary society is thinking. This can sometimes be, and is very scary.

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration*

Take the subject of one such television show about a young man wandering the corridors of an art precinct shooting people, including his mother and sister. This dreadful chain of events happened because his mother was giving away freely to the public art gallery where his sister worked, an artwork worth $2 million dollars.

The son believed this object was part of ‘his inheritance’, one he was entitled to expect or to own during his lifetime. It was an appalling scenario that had me thinking about the fragility surrounding complex human, most especially family relationships. How some parents, either wittingly or unwillingly set their children up to have completely unrealistic expectations.

Paradoxically it reminded me of a metaphorical story told often in the Christian faith, one that I used to read to my own three sons as well as my nieces and nephews when they were growing up.

It is a parable about love.

The telling of the parable, or tale, is meant to help us discover the true source of goodness, giving, grace and redemption.

More commonly known as ‘the prodigal son’, although some may choose to interpret it as that of ‘the waiting father’, it is really a story about a father and two of his sons. Yes, it could be about a woman and daughter, but its not because it comes down to us from the time of a patriarchal society.

What it is about is the human need for love, family and grace.

When ancient texts, either sacred or secular, and in many different creeds speak of a deity, or God as ‘father’, they are not speaking about reality. They are speaking metaphorically.

This should not surprise us!

After all, there is no other way to talk about something essentially spirit – invisible, indivisible, indestructible and indescribable.

We are left only with metaphors, even if we know they are mostly inadequate. What they are meant to do is to help us unravel the real meaning of the story.

So are the two sons really the focus of the story or, is there somewhere else we should be looking?

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c1669, courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Perhaps the storyteller wanted us to concentrate on the loser and finder, rather than on that which is lost and found?

And this tale touches the deepest things for us human beings. It is not about ‘religious’ ideas, but intellectual, philosophical and spiritual ideas that give relevance to any society and culture in our world today.

You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality in life is finally better than any of your dreams**

The younger son only looks outward to material prosperity in his search for meaning.

He asks of his father, well no in reality demands from his father, his portion of an expected inheritance. He doesn’t want to wait for the effluxion of time to give him the wealth. He wants it now.

In effect he is really saying to his father, I wish you were dead. He just wants the money, not any sort of obligation that comes with ownership of property. And, he wants out of here, now. The danger of making a wish like this is that sometimes you might just get what you ask for.

Jeremy Irons as ‘father’ – the Pope in the Showtime Series The Borgias wearing his Cope, which is a robe of honour

In this case he does and his kind father obliges him and off he goes.

His long journey takes him to the very edges of life, where he finds, that because of his inexperience, lack of support and mentoring that he is eventually stripped of his wealth, of his identity and of his self-respect. Interestingly though within this humiliation he paradoxically finds his inner true self; he repents.

The elder son stays at home, internalizing his rage. Try as he might he can’t hold it in and the bitterness spills out when he describes his sibling to his father as ‘this son of yours’ and not ‘my brother’. Sadly he relishes recounting his brother’s sin that includes squandering their father’s money.

This second son has an equal opportunity to find his true self, and in the comfort and convenience of his father’s home, but he squibs it. At least as far as the story goes. He takes another course open to him – blame.

The parable about the ‘waiting father’ is about a man who respects the autonomy of his son, who had a real need to leave the family fold in order to find his real self. His father is prepared to put up with separation and the loss of the son he loves.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1667-70, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

He is prepared to give him his portion of an inheritance, suspecting or maybe even knowing that it will be wasted. And he is prepared to give him time, time to reflect, time to grow, time to experience life first hand, time to make mistakes and to learn from them.

And so he waits, while suffering the pain of thwarted hopes and perhaps unrealistic dreams. He ignores the questions of his friends and business associates. He lives with the doubts and fears as to the wellbeing of his son. He quells his disquiet and just continues to be patient and wait.

In his waiting he holds open the possibility of his son’s return by keeping at bay and casting out any ideas of resentment, or of being judgmental or of trying to find a way to attribute blame. His focus is on keeping alive the flame of love.

The prodigal son finally returns home and amazingly to all those around him his father rushes out to meet him.

He doesn’t wait for repentance, or for explanations, or even an apology.

He simply runs toward his son hugging him and surrounding him with love, welcoming him home.

In his mind the boy has finally come to his senses and wants to share that knowledge with his father. It turns out that the son has prepared a speech, but almost before he can get a word of it out he is enclosed by his father’s loving embrace.

His father calls for a robe of honour to be put around his son.

He also gives him new shoes and a ring before he can say anything at all. But why?

This fragment of a robe of honor, which dates to about the year 1000 in Baghdad. Sewn into it is a certificate of office: “For the use of Abu Said Zandanfarruk ibn Azamard, the Treasurer.”

In first century Palestine where the parable originates each of these items was about a distinct mark of respect and of sonship. The gift of the robe was a mark of the highest honour.

This follows a tradition inherent in eastern custom where a high-value woven textile became symbolic of high office and authority. Weaving was an intrinsic and important aspect of all early societies on earth and a measure of its development from primitive beginnings in the east and out into western Europe.

By the second half of the fourteenth century weaving and needlework were important aspects of both England and Europe’s societies and economies; a measure of wealth and status.

Subjects for great woven tapestries included the three Goddesses associated with destiny and fate from Greek mythology.

Their images, captured in many formats, depicts them weaving the threads of destiny. Considered the personification of the inescapable preordained destiny of humankind

Lachesis determined the length of thread – the period of one’s life, Klotho combed the wool and spun the thread of life while Atropos wove the thread into the fabric of one’s actions.

So the belief was it didn’t matter what you decided you wanted to do, or to be you couldn’t really escape your pre-ordained destiny

Within many cultures over the centuries the act of robing someone became established as a way of personally linking the hand of the person giving the robe to that of the person receiving it. Whether it was a king, a pope, the head of a sect, a bishop or ambassador who was doing the giving or a noble, general, official, priest, nun, or acolyte who was receiving, what it was really all about was giving those believed worthy of respect a way of reflecting it.

Wearing a royal coronation robe, a priest’s cope, a Lord Mayor’s robe of office, an academic or lawyer’s gown all descend from this idea. It was all about honour.

A Minoan Signet Ring found at the ancient site of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete

The ring has been long been a mark of authority in many cultures. It is a sacred shape, a circle it has no beginning or end. It reflects eternal love when given from one person to another to signify devotion.

A signet ring pressed into hot wax was used to seal official documents for thousands of years, because of a lack of mistrust in the courier.

But in our parable giving the ring to his son is an extraordinary act on the Father’s part because it reflects the opposite; complete trust in his newly found son, notwithstanding their recent troubled history.

Giving him shoes too was a mark of a renewed status within his father’s household.

This happened in the days when slaves were kept, who wore no shoes at all. If you had the means and ability to own your own shoes this indicated to others you were a free man. The old quote ‘shoes make the man’ descends from this idea.

The parable of the ‘waiting father’ or ‘lost son’ is a metaphor for, and about what love is. It is meant to remind the listener or receiver of their own shortcomings and, that wherever we are, no matter how dire our own condition or how bleak our circumstances, that when love is freely given it should be and always remain unconditional.

We don’t need to grovel. We don’t need to reflect on what has gone before. We just keep our hearts, minds and arms wide open and value giving whether it is of self, in service, or with love.

Guercino Return Prodigal Son

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666) Return of the Prodigal Son

If we are silent and patient and let grace and love flow then we may be able to give those who have been lost time to know if they really want to be ‘rescued’ or found and come forward to end all old hostilities with grace.

The parable of the waiting father is about the shattering alienations, which divide our human community, and also about just how wide grace is, and should be.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2017

*Edwin Louis Cole Founder Christian Men’s Network

**American Writer, poet and cartoonist Dr Seuss

Refs: Sermon St John’s Cathedral 2004 Revd. Canon Dr Graeme Garrett, Senior Lecturer Theology, St Marks National Theological Centre, Canberra{

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